Jailed student seeks support

August 24, 2001

Campaigners are fighting for the release of Iranian student Ahmad Batebi who was jailed for 15 years after his photograph appeared on the front of The Economist.

Despite the National Union of Students making Mr Batebi an honorary vice-president - an honour previously bestowed on Nelson Mandela, Ken Saro-Wiwa and Winston Silcott - Potkin Azarmehr, who runs the British-based Campaign to Free Iranian Students, said the British press had shown little interest in Batebi's plight.

The Economist front cover showed Mr Batebi, 24, holding a bloodied T-shirt during a protest in July 1999. The protests, over the closure of a reformist Iranian newspaper, had begun peacefully. But students found themselves faced with violent reprisals, which left at least one person dead and many injured.

Mr Batebi happened to be in the area of the protests working on a documentary for his film studies course, according to Mr Azarmehr. Although Mr Batebi was not a member of any of the political groups involved, "he was there, he he saw what was happening and his conscience told him to protest", Mr Azarmehr said.

The Economist cover led to Batebi being arrested, tortured and sentenced to death - later commuted to 15 years in jail. He was sent to the notorious Evin prison from where, earlier this year, he smuggled out a letter.

The document is lucid, articulate and harrowing. "Soldiers stood on my neck and cut off all my hair, and parts of my scalp," he wrote. "They insisted I sign a confessionI They wrote my name on my hand. When I asked why, they said they were taking me to be executed. Then they made me sit with a rope around my neck for two hours."

Mr Batebi, a keen sportsman, has suffered spinal damage and hearing loss as a result of regular beatings. But his situation has inspired little reaction among the British press or students.

Explaining the lack of response from students, Mr Azarmehr said: "These days students have loans, less free time and less time for politics."

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